King Zeno

King Zeno

by Nathaniel Rich

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New Orleans, 1918. The birth of jazz, the Spanish flu, an ax murderer on the loose. The lives of a traumatized cop, a conflicted Mafia matriarch, and a brilliant trumpeter converge—and the Crescent City gets the rich, dark, sweeping novel it so deserves.

From one of the most inventive writers of his generation, King Zeno is a historical crime novel and a searching inquiry into man’s dreams of immortality.

New Orleans, a century ago: a city determined to reshape its destiny and, with it, the nation’s. Downtown, a new American music is born. In Storyville, prostitution is outlawed and the police retake the streets with maximum violence. In the Ninth Ward, laborers break ground on a gigantic canal that will split the city, a work of staggering human ingenuity intended to restore New Orleans’s faded mercantile glory. The war is ending and a prosperous new age dawns. But everything is thrown into chaos by a series of murders committed by an ax-wielding maniac with a peculiar taste in music.

The ax murders scramble the fates of three people from different corners of town. Detective William Bastrop is an army veteran haunted by an act of wartime cowardice, recklessly bent on redemption. Isadore Zeno is a jazz cornetist with a dangerous side hustle. Beatrice Vizzini is the widow of a crime boss who yearns to take the family business straight. Each nurtures private dreams of worldly glory and eternal life, their ambitions carrying them into dark territories of obsession, paranoia, and madness.

In New Orleans, a city built on swamp, nothing stays buried long.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374716318
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Nathaniel Rich is the author of two novels: Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue. He is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and his essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Daily Beast. He is also the author of a book about film noir, San Francisco Noir: The City in Film Noir from 1940 to the Present. He lives in New Orleans.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor's Tongue and Odds Against Tomorrow. His essays and short fiction have appeared in Harper's Magazine, The New York Review of Books, McSweeney's, and The New York Times Magazine. Born in New York City, he now lives in New Orleans.

Read an Excerpt




New Orleans Item, 5/23/18:


Joseph Maggio and Wife Slain in Grocery Home During Night


For the last six years Joseph Maggio, a native of Sicily, has run a small grocery at 4901 Magnolia street, corner of Upperline.

It was a typical establishment of its kind — the grocery in the front and the rooms of Maggio and his wife in the rear. In one of them there also lived Maggio's brother, Andrew, a barber.

The grocery served a small and mixed clientele, half black and half white. Its receipts were not enormous, but they were sufficient to keep Maggio and his wife in comfort.


So far as is known they had no enemies. Born of a farming class, they had attained the distinction of owning a small business — the ambition of nine out of ten immigrants. They had been married fifteen years. Altogether a commonplace, contented couple, with a long and peaceful life ahead of them.

At 5:30 o'clock Thursday morning the police received a telephone call from Andrew Maggio. They should come to Upperline and Magnolia at once. His brother and sister-in-law had been killed.

A squad found the bodies of Maggio and his wife lying in bed, throats and heads cut open by repeated blows from an ax. The story of a wholly murderous intent was told by the fact that, of the dozen blows struck, all but one or two would have been sufficient to kill. But the murderer had wanted to make sure ...

New Orleans States, 5/24/18:


The waylaying of four early-morning pedestrians in three separate holdups in the upper-rear section of the city Friday brought the negro highwaymen but scant returns. For hours a squad of men was busy rounding up negro suspects.

The victims of Friday morning's holdups are: Charles Lowe, ticket agent at the Union Station; Florin Bodemuller, 16, of 1748 Jackson avenue; Joseph Tolozzio, banana packer for the United Fruit Company; and Richard Boland, newsdealer at Canal and Royal streets.

Lowe had gone to a bakery shop at Clio and Liberty streets, where he purchased two loaves of bread at 2:30 o'clock Friday morning. While waiting for a streetcar, he was approached by a negro, who forced him to throw up his hands at the point of a revolver. The negro took from Lowe thirty cents and compelled him to give up his blue worsted coat.

Bodemuller was returning from a dance at 1 o'clock when a negro held him up with a revolver at Jackson avenue and Brainard street. After taking a Waltham watch and ribbon fob, valued at $30, Bodemuller was forced to remove his shoes, valued at $4.50. The youth was compelled to walk home in his stockings.

Tolozzio and Boland got out of a streetcar at Howard avenue and Carondelet street and were confronted by a negro with a revolver, who forced them to throw up their hands. From Tolozzio the highwayman secured $1.50 and from Boland twenty cents in pennies. Tolozzio and Boland set up cries for help and the highwayman fired a shot at them as he fled.

New Orleans Item, 5/25/18:


Victim of a negro highwayman's bullet, received at 2 o'clock Saturday morning, Theodore Blaum, driver of wa bakery wagon, is in Charity Hospital in a critical condition. Chances of recovery are said to be slight. He was shot in the left breast, the bullet just missing his heart.

Blaum was fired upon without warning as he emerged from an alley in the rear of 1813 Baronne street, where he was delivering bread. After shooting him, says Blaum, the negro took $3 from his clothing. Blaum climbed back on his wagon and drove to the hospital. The negro escaped.

Hours earlier, Charlton R. Beattie, former U.S. district attorney, residing in the De Soto Hotel, was fired upon by a negro highwayman at Coliseum, near First street. He was not injured. Henry Baldwin, president of A. Baldwin & Co., who witnessed the assault from the gallery of his home, was fired upon when he yelled at the footpad. Mr. Baldwin was not hurt. The negro got nothing.

The police believe the man who held up Mr. Beattie is the one who shot Blaum. The descriptions tally. The highwayman is said to be about 25 years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and 135 pounds. He wore a brown shirt and black pants.

The holdups Saturday morning made five "highway jobs" in 48 hours. In all cases the assailant was a negro.

Although the negro held a revolver to his head, Beattie refused to comply.

"I'll not do it," he told the robber, when ordered to throw up his hands.

The negro's loud talk attracted Mr. Baldwin.

"As I came out on the upstairs gallery to investigate the loud talking," Mr. Baldwin told the police, "I saw a negro pointing a gun to the head of a white man. I hollered to the negro and he backed away and fired two shots."

Mr. Blaum is married.

New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5/26/18:


Withstands Grilling by Police Chief

Andrew Maggio, held since Thursday in connection with the murder of his brother and sister-in-law, keepers of a grocery store at Magnolia street, was released from custody by Superintendent Mooney Saturday night.

"It is terrible that I should be accused of killing my brother when I am innocent," said Maggio. "I may say something at another time, but I can't talk about it tonight."

New Orleans States, 5/26/18:


Saturday night was no exception to the rule applying to the nightly holdups since Wednesday, during which time six holdups of citizens occurred. In every case the highwayman was a negro who held his victim at bay with a revolver.

The latest highway victim was J. E. Ragan, supervisor for the Illinois Central Railroad at the Union Station.

Mr. Ragan was on his way home shortly after 11 o'clock. When he reached Baudin and Rendon streets, a negro jumped out from a hiding place and commanded Ragan to throw up his hands. Instead of complying, Mr. Ragan leaped forward and grabbed the hand which held the revolver. A struggle followed, during which shots were fired. Fortunately they all went wild. The negro escaped. He secured nothing.


Armed with riot guns, and led by Senior Captain Capo, a squad of policemen scoured the neighborhood in a vain search.

The highwayman Saturday night did not escape without leaving telltale evidence behind. The police are in possession of a dark slouch hat which remained in the grip of Mr. Ragan, who tried desperately to hold on to the negro until assistance could reach him.

New Orleans Times-Picayune, 5/26/18:


Another holdup in the series of highway robberies of white persons by armed negroes was reported to the police early Sunday morning. Richard Bray, 17, was relieved of $1.40 and a bundle of clothes, at Banks and Clark streets.

The negro answers the description of the one who, earlier in the night, held up and shot at J. E. Ragan. As in the earlier robbery, the highwayman left his hat in making his getaway.


Navies called it instinct. Not sense, skill, talent — instinct. If it wasn't in you, you couldn't fake it. How to hear the truth in a lie. How to spot the shark in a crowded streetcar. How to persuade a mother to betray her son. How to locate the trigger that would make a man talk: A full revolution of the wrist? A poke to the baby skin behind the knee? A potato sack cinched around the neck? Most critical: how to figure when a person was lying to your face. In that category he was gallingly deficient. Particularly when the person of interest was a woman. Particularly when the woman was his wife. No, that wasn't fair — Maze had never lied to him. At least so far as he knew. If Maze had lied to him, he wouldn't have been able to tell, so what difference did it make? This was how his brain worked, in closed circuits, always questioning itself, questioning itself questioning itself, questioning itself questioning itself questioning itself.

Two police skills Bill did have: observation and memory. They came to him conjoined like the two-headed boy, grinning from both mouths. They were loyal old companions, observation and memory, and had never abandoned him, though in the last year they had been less blessing than curse. Nineteen minutes had passed since he and Charlie Breaux had split from Obitz and Dodson, and he could remember, with photographic clarity, every person he had seen since. On Clio an emaciated bald man driving a peanut wagon, most likely asleep, bent like a tree in a storm. Two women of high school age, though assuredly unenrolled, floated across the intersection at Erato in silk gowns that brushed the rubble. Around the lakeside corner at Thalia loped an ursine man, about thirty, in a long trench coat and dark homburg. And near Terpsichore an unconscious drunk blocked the sidewalk, belly down, his cheek caked with mud. On a typical night the drunk would prompt a call to the butcher wagon. But this was no typical night, for a maniac highwayman was loose.

The stillness of the street was a rebuke. But what did Bill expect? Citizens' groups on patrol? A marching band? The families in this back-of-town neighborhood, stuck between the rock of the Irish Channel and the whirlpool of Storyville, many of them recently arrived on steamers from Naples or Queenstown, barricaded themselves inside at night, ceding the streets to the drunks, the blackguards, the thieves. Electric streetlamps supervised the major intersections but most of the bulbs had died. It was madness: the city was spending six million dollars on the excavation of a gargantuan canal to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain and it couldn't bother to maintain its streetlamps? But even when the lamps worked they gave little benefit, as the blocks were long and for great lengths suffocated by night.

Charlie's bad leg scuffed on the gravel, creating a clumsy percussion that announced their presence to the rows of darkened houses. Step-scuff, step-scuff, step-scuff.

"I don't like this, Billy," said Charlie. "It's hinky."

"Too quiet? Too dark?"

"Too hinky."

It was three in the morning. Bill had traveled a full day's distance from his last sleep. He'd awoken early to provide security at a breakfast rally at City Hall for war bonds; at noon he was summoned to Annunciation and Second Street, where a six-year-old girl had been struck by a streetcar; at five, after registering the girl in Charity Hospital, he reported to the station for a briefing on the all-night patrol for the negro highwayman. That meeting was delayed by three hours, however, because Superintendent Mooney was busy interrogating Andrew Maggio, the brother of the butchered Italian grocer. Mooney made a habit of presiding over the flashiest cases, and before the highwayman spree that meant the Maggio murders. The only suspect was Andrew Maggio, a barber, who claimed to have overheard the slaughter, but he did not break and Mooney had to release him. It was nine before Mooney gave the men their details. Bill and Charlie had patrolled six hours without relief.

"I'm tired," said Charlie. "My feet are singing."

"Tired. I don't remember what that's like. Tired."

"It's like being thirsty in your brain."

"I moved past tired a long time ago."

"It is like your feet belong to a stranger."

Bill felt mainly a panicked restlessness. The knowledge of the lurking fanatic had whittled his senses to a fine point. In the queasy silence of Baronne Street the creaking of Charlie's bum knee and the ghostly scuffing of his foot and the muddy squelch of Bill's own trench boots screamed in his ears.

So when the gun fired it was like a thunderstroke.

Another police instinct: run toward gunshots. Bill never had the instinct and even used to puzzle at its existence, but since returning to New Orleans he thirsted for violence and its baptismal promise. Here was his first real chance at it. He followed George downtown, their legs pistoning, ribbons of green slime leaping onto their pants, toward the explosions.

Near the corner of Calliope they came upon two men hugging. The men were sprawled across the step of a shotgun cottage. The larger one — six feet, two hundred pounds — lay on top, his posterior extruding unnaturally. His cap had fallen off and the moon illuminated his bright yellow hair and the gold buttons of his navy jacket. The smaller man was nearly invisible beneath him. Bill realized at once that it was Harry Dodson, being smothered by Teddy Obitz.

"Offa me." Dodson's voice was a deflating balloon.

Charlie stopped midstride, an automaton that had lost its electrical charge. "That you, Harry?"

"Get 'em offa me!"

They pulled the large man's shoulders but Big Blond wouldn't budge. Harry wheezed terribly.

"Whatsa matter, Big Blond?" said Charlie. "You're hurting Harry." The poor bastard was always feebleminded, but when he was scared, he became borderline moronic.

"Teddy's shot, Charlie."

"Big Blond is shot?"

They tried again, tugging on Obitz's stiff giant shoulders. With a grotesque peeling sound, Obitz fell back, his head cracking against the porch column like an ax striking a tree, the sound reverberating in the empty street. Obitz's blond hair was wet. His eyes were open, staring in disbelief. His chest was sticky with black mess. As was Harry's.

"You shot too?" said Charlie.

Harry shook his head. He gulped the night deeply and crossed his hands over his ribs, as if to protect them from further insult. "It's Teddy's," he said. "It's his insides."

"The man did this," said Bill. "Where is he?"

Harry coughed, a wet, mucousy cough. He was breathing strangely. He wheezed something that sounded like "telephone."

"Which telephone?" asked Charlie.

"Down Baronne. Toward the Battlefield."

That's all Charlie had to hear. He was off in a sprint — a bowlegged, herky-jerky sprint. That was instinct for you.

With his two comrades sitting on the porch, staring at him — one gasping like a fish, the other dead — Bill knew he should say something, something reassuring. He tried to remember what you were supposed to say but the violence was pulling him. "I promise," he began. "I promise."

"Get!" shouted Harry.

Charlie was nearly a block ahead. Bill ran after him and almost immediately stumbled on a broken paving stone, twisting hard to the ground. When he rose, Charlie was gone. This stretch of Baronne had no cuts — the cottages were jammed tight against one another — but when he reached the corner, the intersection was empty. The only sign of life was a cur with a deformed front paw. It walked in a repeating loop, its head bent, its jaw working furiously. To the right, beyond the dog, was Lee Circle. To the left, Union Station Plaza and behind it the Battlefield. Bill stopped, listening. He heard only the cur's low plaintive whimper. Toward the Battlefield, Harry had said. Bill's instinct was to go right, toward the sick dog, away from the Battlefield, so he ran left.

Five rows of palm trees ran the length of the grassy plaza in front of Union Station. Electric globes stood on tall black stanchions around its perimeter. The palms cast shadows like long fingers across the lawn. It was an obvious place to hide, within the alleys of the tree-lined plaza, among the broad palm fronds that were like gigantic splayed hands protecting a secret.

Bill waded between the palms, the stiff leaves raking over his cap. A sharp pain shot through his wrist — he was squeezing his revolver too tightly. He transferred the weapon to his left hand and flexed until feeling returned. In his mind he saw Teddy Obitz, sprawled on the cottage porch, staring into infinity. Detective Obitz: the city's shrewdest investigator, a mentor to Bill before the war, kind, loyal, shrewd, strong. If the violence could claim a man as strong as Obitz, it could claim anyone, and there was no resisting its dark lullaby. It helped to remind himself of that.

He burst into the first alley, gun ready, and swiveled — left, right. Nothing but a smooth rectangular lawn followed by another row of palm trees. He listened for rustling, but the grass muted everything and the silence was a Klaxon in his ears.

He dashed across the lane and into the next line of palms. The gigantic hands parted to admit him. There: across the next alley, a movement. He froze. One of the shadows bent like a beckoning finger. Someone stood not fifteen feet away, screened by a pair of low-hanging fronds. The light from the electric globes barely reached the center of the plaza and Bill squinted into the darkness. It had become very cold. The sky was ashy, the palms blackish green, the grass blue. The fronds across the alley waved again, as if taken by a breeze, but there was no breeze.


Excerpted from "King Zeno"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nathaniel Rich.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part One: Glyptodont,
Part Two: Towns Within Towns,
Part Three: The Underground Forest,
Also by Nathaniel Rich,
A Note About the Author,

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